The Salt Plains of Uyuni

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The bus left at 8:30 in the morning for the nine (read: ten and a half) hour trip to Uyuni, gateway to Bolivia’s legendary 4200m Salar de Uyuni salt flats. En route we passed through Potosi, the world’s highest city and somewhere that with more time I would have spent a day at to visit the silver mine that almost single-handedly financed Spain’s colonial aspirations. There’s not much silver there anymore but miners still endure terrible conditions (it’s expected that within ten years, miners will develop lung disease). Worse, that means that most miners don’t live much into their 30s. But this bitter taste of reality was not to be and I arrived in Uyuni, found a hostel across the street from the bus terminal for 25 bolivianos, and shopped around for tour prices. There are one day, three day, and four day tours which generally cost 150 Bs ($21), 560 Bs ($80), and 800 Bs ($115) respectively. The one day takes you to the train cemetery and into the salt flats then back again; the three day adds an overnight stay in a hotel made of salt (really), a visit to Isla de Pescado, Laguna Verde/Colorado on the Argentine/Chilean border, and a stop in the thermal baths on the way back to Uyuni; the fourth simply adds a climb up a volcano overlooking the salt flats which, probably, would have fantastic views. I wanted to find a way to not loop back to Uyuni and continue on to Argentina but unfortunately this is a very expensive option. Those wishing to continue into Chile, however, can do so quite easily. I opted for the three day trip and got an early sleep to book my trip in the morning, visit the bank, reserve a seat on the train out of here, and run a few errands like buying a blanket for the cold, cold salt flats.

So I woke up at 6:30 AM, packed up my bags, and was out at 7 to beat the morning lines. The ATM was working and I got my money and booked my trip with Sumaj Jallpha for 560 including the sleeping bag (usually an extra 40 Bs and highly recommended). I had found cheaper for 500 or 520 with the sleeping bag but decided to go with the more pricey company because they had some good sounding recommendations and good friendly staff. Ironically it didn’t matter at all as the company that had given me the good price didn’t have enough for their jeep and wound up basically taking me anyway, except at an extra 40 Bs. So my advice is that, since they share anyway, just take a low priced one and go for it. We did have good food though never quite enough and our driver, Roman, didn’t speak English and was always rushing us for no good reason, so maybe better advice is just to go with someone else. In any case, aside from being rushed (I generally ignored his “Vamos chicos!” calls anyway) the tour was fine and most importantly we had a really cool group. There was a 19-year old Dutch guy named Rutger who was friendly and very talkative, and then four people living in Bolivia working for British Gas (BG). One guy was an electrical engineer from Tunisia (Amin), two were Bolivians (Juan Pablo and Paula) from Sucre/Santa Cruz, and the fourth was an Argentinian engineer named Vanina. They were hilarious and we had such a great time.


The first day was unquestionably the best. After a brief stop in the train cemetery just outside of town we took off for the Salar de Uyuni. Imagine 12000 square kilometres of salt, white and shining in the sun. At its deepest point, the salar goes down 12m and, yes, is pure salt. There was a sea here once, and a lake after that, and all the salt was left behind as the water evaporated. Just outside the salt flats is a small town with handicrafts and items made of salt – dice, jugs, and miniature llamas most prominent among them. Inside, after stopping at some salt mounds and bubbling ponds, our first visit was a salt hotel-turned-museum. Salt and water baked in the oven make bricks which are formed into the building, beds, tables, and chairs. Stopping here was somewhat pointless as our destination that night was a hotel exactly like this one. The next stop, Fish Island, was much more interesting. In the middle of a parched white sea of salty hexagons is an old island of dead coral, cacti, volcanic rock, and beautiful views of the surreal countryside. Our guide, as I said, was rushing us EVERYwhere, claiming that we would lose our spots in the salt hotel if we didn’t get there soon enough. We called his bluff and said we were fine staying in a real hotel and bought ourselves time to take a bunch of stereotypical salt-flats photos: being cooked in a pot, eaten on a spoon, squishing the jeep, and so on. I have to admit it was a lot of fun. Then off to the hotel where we witnessed a beautiful sunset and slept pretty soundly – except that with every breath you could taste the salt you were breathing in.


We began the second day with a walk to the nearby indigenous museum which was 15 Bs but also included entrance to the nearby funerary towers which housed remarkably well-preserved (thanks to the salt) and eery mummies in the fetal position, sometimes with tools or ceramics to help them in the afterlife. Much to Amin’s delight, we later past a few wandering herds of llamas – the man is obsessed but we did get some cool photos. The area is mostly desert and so anything breaking the sandy homogeny was a spectacle. Even a tree would draw attention. In this case, the next big stop was a tree, but one of stone and we certainly stopped. Aside from the rock tree there were pillars of rock all over and we did a bit of playing and climbing in them before the familiar “Vamos, vamos!” called us all back to the jeep. We passed a couple lakes, one of which hosted our lunch, and then entered the national park for Laguna Colorado. This is nothing more than a government money-grab and the price went up a few weeks ago from 30 Bs to 150 Bs (unless you are a Bolivian) which we grudgingly paid and moved on. Laguna Colorado is so named because the minerals in the water give it a salmon-red reflection when the wind stirs up the lake and we got some nice views of the red water and a shocking number of dead flamingos that weren’t quite up to the flight out to lower altitudes. The night was passed with a shocking number of wine bottles, shouting “Kampay!” with the Japanese tourist, and visiting with other groups sharing the hotel with us. The temperature there was cold and often gets down to -20 although with the cloud cover we were lucky to have it stay north of -10.


Morning started early with a 5:15 AM wake up call, a few pancakes, and fumbling in the dark. We were at 4600m and it was hard to get out of our warm beds but we managed it and were in the jeep by 6. The first stop this morning was some geysers shooting out steam and the plan was to get there while it was still cold and the steam was really pronounced. Pits of bubbling mud and steam at 200 degrees Celsius made this an interesting way to fumble around half-tired and we were all wide awake and tasting rotten eggs from the sulphur by the time we got back to the jeep to continue our final day. The next stop was meant to be some thermal baths but instead we went to Laguna Verde at the tri-border of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia first to let the day warm and the crowds disperse. We passed some beautiful mountains of red, white, yellow, and orange on the way and the lake itself lived up to its name. The thermal waters were empty when we got back and we quite enjoyed having it to ourselves – in spite of the chilly wind all of us save Paula got in and the water at 35 degrees was quite nice indeed. We were on our way back to Uyuni and passed Laguna Colorado again (which was nicer than yesterday) and another set of rock pillars before returning to Uyuni at 5 PM. The BG guys had to take off after a quick pizza and Rutger and I sat with them before moving on to our own excellent pizza at Minutemen, which is a must if you make it here. I had a train at 2:30 AM for Villazon at the Argentina border and beyond and probably the best reason for using the agency I did was that the very friendly Argentines in the office kept it open for us to wait for the train.

Salar de Uyuni Photos

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